Interview: Springwatch presenter Iolo Williams

John Miles chats to the BBC Springwatch TV presenter...

Iolo Williams with Ewan Miles

Iolo Williams with Ewan Miles

We were sitting in a hide on the RSPB’s reserve at Loch Gruinart on Islay watching a number of different species – Barnacle, Greenland White-fronted and Icelandic Greylag Geese, ducks, such as Teal, Shoveler, Pintail and Wigeon, and waders like Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit and Ruff – when an adult female Hen Harrier flew into view. Many of the ducks exploded into the air, as the raptor searched for prey around the many pools.

Myself, my son Ewan and naturalist and TV presenter Iolo Williams were helping guide a small group of birders with Nature Scotland, and this bird was one of Iolo’s specials, as he had found them close to where he lived as a young boy. But he was enraged about the eradication of this bird from many parts of Scotland, England and even Wales, especially from areas managed for Red Grouse.

It was his taid (Welsh for granddad) who took him out into the countryside to look at nature and started his interest. It was not just birds of prey, but all species, with nest-finding a great way to learn about the habitats needed by each species.

His mum Meg was a great nest-finder, showing the patience to sit and wait and watch the bird’s movements to follow it back to a nest while his dad, Dai, was happy to be out in the countryside as a break from his job as a headteacher in local schools. Iolo learned about fishing from his granddad, too, as well as which plants and fungi you could eat, and even where to look for lizards sitting out in a sunny spot.

It was this upbringing that pushed Iolo to his first job with the RSPB in Wales, after gaining a degree in Ecology in London. His job was to look after protected species, such as Hen Harrier, Chough and even Nightjars, in his beloved Wales.

He loved being out in ‘his country’ and, as a fluent Welsh speaker, was well adapted to the job. It covered the whole country, but the Berwyn Mountains was one of his favourite areas, as so much moorland wildlife could be found there then.

Iolo worked under Roger Lovegrove, who spent 27 years building up the Welsh office for the RSPB, and folk like Stephany Tiller, who had a thing for Dippers! But this came to an end when the RSPB tried to have him sitting behind a desk. Gone would be that sense of freedom, walking out in the moors. Instead, pushing paper was to be the way forward. So, his 15 years working for the RSPB finished in 1998.

It was a very hard decision as he now had a wife and two young sons to look after.

The last few years with the RSPB had brought him to the attention of TV. In 1997, BBC Wales approached him to work on a new series called Visions of Snowdonia which followed the lives of six people living and working on the slopes of Wales’ highest mountain.

It was a success, so he was offered a second series – this time, Iolo was ‘Birdman’, in a series following him around looking at birds. It even took him to Italy, where he woke up to the start of the shooting season there, with 800,000 guns blasting away. Not even at game birds like Pheasants and Red Grouse, either, but often species as small as Robins and House Sparrows. The experience made him sick to the stomach.

It was this taste of the camera that would keep him busy, especially on Welsh TV. New series included Wild Wales, Wild Winter, Iolo’s Special Reserves, Iolo’s Natural History of Wales and Iolo’s Welsh Safari’ These were done both in Welsh and English and he also co-presented several network series such as Nature’s Top 40 and Countryfile. His big break came in 2011, while filming in North America.

As a boy, Iolo had loved playing cowboys and Indians – though he always wanted to take the role of the native American, rather than cowboy! He was filming a six-part series for the Welsh channel S4C, meeting up with six different tribes. This series showed him how easy it was for tribes to lose their language in a modern society, something paralleled at home in Wales.

After completing the series he was having a few drinks with a couple of French Canadians before flying home, so the last thing he was expecting at 4am was a phone call from England and none other than Chris Packham asking him if he wanted a shot at presenting on Springwatch. It was Springwatch that brought Iolo firmly into the public eye, so much so he has been called The Ambassador for Nature in Wales. This took another step forward on 22 May, 2013, when he memorably addressed the Welsh Assembly. Speeches were being given simultaneously in London, Edinburgh and Belfast regarding the State of the Nation’s Wildlife, but this one caught public attention for the sheer dedication and devotion to Wales Iolo spelt out, and his views on how the country had been let down by those who should be looking after it – the heads of conservation!

Watch Iolo’s speech

All this TV, now including Springwatch, Autumnwatch and Winterwatch, as well as more Welsh programs such as Rugged Wales, Snowdonia and Great Welsh Parks for BBC 2, brought him new adventures, such as tour guiding. This was down to the Grant Arms Hotel in Speyside offering him his first tour, and he now regularly returns to the hotel at least twice a year.

Other tours take him to the wilds of Mull (with my son Ewan), Islay, North Wales, Shetland, Orkney, and many other UK destinations with other tour companies, as well as South America, India and Africa.

Iolo with Hugh Gillings and Ewan Miles

Iolo with Hugh Gillings and Ewan Miles

Writing books is another part of his life, having written several on and around Wales, including some in Welsh. His Wild Places: Wales Top 40 Nature Sites has been reprinted, and he is currently doing a British version of this – being such a proud Welshman, I suggested this was just the same book with 40 sites in Wales! “Well, 39,” claimed Iolo, laughing.

With everything happening, you’d think he had no spare time but one sport is his passion and that is Rugby Union (best not to mention England then!), which he played for many years.

He still keeps fit and, even on tours, can be seen running, before guests get up for breakfast. Both his sons follow his love for sport and Tomos has already got a cap for playing for Wales, but in football at Under-18 level, not rugby, while Dewi is studying Sports Science at university and has a feel for nature, going on a trip to Zambia with his dad.

In 2017, Iolo received an honorary fellowship from the University of South Wales for his work promoting wildlife and Wales. He is involved with 10 charities either as president, patron or ambassador, and gives talks to local wildlife groups and the like. He is a professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) dive-master as well as being a qualified paraglider (a real birdman!) and one of his dreams is to fly with all the great birds in the world.

So far, he has flown with Red Kites and Buzzards in Wales, but wants to do the same with vultures in Nepal and hopes a series can be made of it in the near future.

As the late Steve Irwin found out to his cost, working with wildlife can have its dangers; and filming in Fort Yates, North Dakota, Iolo stepped on a rattlesnake. Fortunately, the snake just grabbed his jeans and not his leg.

“Had I been wearing shorts, I’m sure it would have been a very different story,” he said. “I would have had to spend quite some time in hospital, as they are very venomous. But it was a beautiful thing, with lovely markings, about four feet long, and about six years old – you can tell because of the rings on the rattle.”

With Britain on a new road after Brexit, nature needs folk like Iolo more and more, and let’s hope not just the Welsh Assembly listen to what he has to say, but any British Government as well, because we are a poorer nation if we lose our wildlife.

Interview: Musician Fyfe Dangerfield

The Guillemots singer talks to Ed Hutchings…

Fyfe Dangerfield

Fyfe Dangerfield

Fyfe Dangerfield is a busy man. It took four years for us to meet. One day, out of the blue, I received a text from him with a Google Map screen grab. “I’ve just passed this place on the train. It’s an hour from London and looks perfect for our walk!”

And indeed, it was. Cattawade Marshes RSPB is a SSSI between East Bergholt in Suffolk and Manningtree in Essex. It is a Ramsar wetland of international importance, part of the Stour and Orwell SPA and Dedham Vale AONB. I regularly lead courses here for the nearby Field Studies Council at Flatford Mill. I have enjoyed many hours here near my home.

I lead by asking where his interest in birds stems from. “It’s hard to know what’s real and what you’ve been told. I suspect what might have got me into it all was a fun live birdwatch programme for a week from the Farne Islands in the mid-eighties. I’ve only patchy memories of it, but my mum was watching it, so I started watching it and it sparked an interest.”

I inquire if his parents have an interest in birds. “They did, but in a passing way. They were interested enough for Mum to be watching the programme. But then, when I became more captivated by it, we started going off at the weekends to bird reserves and taking walks.

"But the Puffins on the Farne Islands were memorable.”

I propose that the sight of Puffins is likely to spark an interest in birds with anyone. “And I guess there would have been a few Guillemots”, he adds, referencing the name of the band he is most associated with. Fyfe Dangerfield (real name Hutchins) is a musician and songwriter, best known as the founding member of the indie rock band Guillemots.

The BRIT Award-nominated band was formed in London in November 2004 and currently includes the members Aristazabal Hawkes and Greig Stewart. Their first album ‘Through the Windowpane’ was nominated for the 2006 Mercury Music Prize. The band have often been joined by other musicians known as the Bridled Guillemots, and Fyfe also leads an improvising group called Gannets.

I suggest that seabirds seem to be a passion of his, seeing as a few of the bands he is involved with are named after them. He smirks. “I do like seabirds, but it wasn’t that. Coming up for a name for a band is hard, so I remember thinking we should call it after a bird, as I like birds, and that’ll narrow it down a bit. And then I narrowed it down to seabirds.

“The first low-key gig we did we were called The Kittiwakes, until I found out there was another band named that. There was no significance. You do kind of get analytical about it. Maybe it reminded me of childhood, because those were the birds that got me into it, so maybe subconsciously it was harking back to when the interest was awoken.”

Avian inspiration

Birds are a source of inspiration for the Guillemots not just in name. Their 2006 EP ‘From the Cliffs’ continues the Guillemot theme, the bird’s natural habitat being steep sea cliffs. In their Myspace entry their influences are given as ‘BIRDSONG first and foremost’. Their first album features recordings of birds such as Red-throated Diver, the line “flitting like a flycatcher”, a reference to the mercurial movements of these birds, as well as the song, Redwings, named after our winter thrushes.

I ask whether this was his influence or whether the rest of the band are birders, too. “Oh no, it was definitely me,” he laughs. “They weren’t uninterested, but they got a bit sick sometimes about people asking them about birds.

“It’s nothing to do with us,” they’d reply, “it’s down to Fyfe.”

“Birdsong is an inspiration in that it’s a beautiful kind of music. It’s funny, as people often assume there’s more of a motive. It’s just instinct. Outside of music, it’s one of the real loves I’ve had in my life. Again, birdsong wasn’t a particularly conceptual thing. It was, ‘that’s a cool sound.’ There’s one bit on Through the Windowpane, at the end of Blue Would Still Be Blue, where a Robin is singing. It’s about certain memories like that and not just about the song. It reminds me of a time in my life or a certain scene. Woodpigeons cooing has always made me think of being 10 in Worcestershire in the summer holidays. They would sit on our chimney and you’d hear the call coming down.”

I inquire if being a musician is useful when it comes to learning birdsong.
“I think so, though I haven’t been fully showing it today with my Sedge/Reed Warbler separation,” he chuckles. “Generally, that’s often how I identify birds and then I know where to look. I’ve also really got into sampling the past few years. I’ve got quite a few sounds now that I use as musical instruments but made of bird sounds. There was a bunch of birds in Australia I recorded on holiday a few years ago. A lot of the bird sounds there are so exotic, such as the Pied Butcherbird and Bell Miner. I love that you can just record these sounds on your phone, put it into a computer and then use them as chords.

“It’s magical that I can play a keyboard sound of something that is alive or once was. They have much more of a pitch and dynamic range. I have a segue on one of the albums I’m working on, with a weird Welshman having a breakdown with Kookaburras in the background. It’s a strange combination.”

Fyfe’s favourite birdsong

As a songwriter I ask which birdsong he appreciates the most. “I love the Golden Oriole. That’s a magical one and I like the way it looks too. And the Sedge and Reed Warblers we’ve been hearing today. They’re beautiful songs and so detailed, all these shifts and changes. There’s something about certain sounds from birds that I always associate with somewhere wilder. It’s the same when you hear an Oystercatcher or a Curlew.

Fyfe Dangerfield

Fyfe Dangerfield

“They seem like a gateway. Then there’s the eeriness of the Nightjar call which I’ve only ever experienced once. Even the sound of the Redshank reminds me of being by estuaries or holidays when I was younger. There’s so many associations with birdsong.”

I ask if any birding experience in his life stands out more than any other. “I love seeing Bee-eaters when I get the chance or anything that’s multicoloured. I once went for a walk with my dad in France as a teenager. We summitted a hill, turned a corner and, as near as I am to you, there was a Short-toed Eagle just sitting there. I’ll always remember that.

Seeing Bee-eayers is one of Fyfe’s favourite birding experiences. Pic: blickwinkel/Alamy

Seeing Bee-eayers is one of Fyfe’s favourite birding experiences. Pic: blickwinkel/Alamy

“I’ve probably exaggerated it in my mind. I think we’d seen it fly round and so I was creeping round trying to see it. It looked at me and then flew off.

"It was weird, because you’re hardly ever face-to-face with a bird of prey. I remember as a teenager living in Worcestershire, someone told us about this secretive place that you could see Barn Owls."

Fyfe added: “We went down there one evening and, as it was starting to get dark, it came out of this barn. It was the first time I’d seen one. It’s not just the bird, it’s the whole experience. Divers, too. There’s something mystical about them. They seem to be from another age with their looks and calls.

"I remember a family holiday in Scotland when I was about 10. My parents let me go off walking for a bit and, being pre-mobile phones, we’d agreed a rendezvous time. I came back 20 minutes late, much to their distress, because I’d found a family of Red-throated Divers on a lochan.”

Fyfe (right) with his band, Gulliemots

Fyfe (right) with his band, Gulliemots

We pause as Fyfe attempts to hand feed a group of House Sparrows that have taken up positions near our table. “It’s amazing when you get to see them so close. There’s not really an ugly bird when you look at them closely. You could say the Cormorant is ugly, but it’s beautiful, too. They seem from another age.” I ask if there’s any bird he has a burning desire to see. “Long-eared Owl. There are certain British birds that aren’t especially rare, but which I’ve never seen. Black Grouse is another.”

I inquire where he would like to go birding more than anywhere else.

“I’d love to go back to the Camargue,” he says. “I went once with my parents on holiday. I remember as a kid it seemed so exotic – the Greater Flamingos, Red-crested Pochard and Black-winged Stilts – it seemed like paradise for me. Domestically, I just love the Scottish Highlands and would like to see all the specialities there.”

I mention that the band name Capercaillie has already been taken.

“Ah, but they’re not a seabird, are they?”, he grins. Divers it is then.

Hear Fyfe Dangerfield’s music...

In 2018, Fyfe has launched a new website offering visitors a new collection of music every week under the title ‘birdwatcher – a series of broadcasts from Fyfe Dangerfield’. Visit the website and listen to the tracks at:

Follow Fyfe on Twitter at:

Boost your ticks

There’s a school of thought that ticking off the birds that you see has nothing to do with proper birdwatching, but, as we hope you are already coming to appreciate through #My200BirdYear, adding new birds to your list, first of all involves getting to know familiar birds well. Really well, we mean – appearance, flight style, songs and calls, behaviour, even their nest type.

Once you do, you start to realise there are certain species that you have overlooked. For example, if you’re lucky enough to live near an estuary, you may have spent the winter watching flocks of Dunlin. If you’ve watched them really closely, though, you’ll find that at some stage, you’re able to pick out the similar Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint. Two extra ticks, yes, but also two subtly beautiful waders you can then appreciate in their own right.

So, here are five species that slip beneath the radar of many a birder.

Stock Dove

David Chapman/Alamy

David Chapman/Alamy

Shyer and a little smaller than the similar and ubiquitous Woodpigeon, and more tied to wooded areas and forest edges, this is nevertheless a common and widespread bird. It lacks its relative’s white neck patch and, in flight, also has more sharply contrasted colours than the Woodpigeon, with no white wing band – it also flaps its wings rather quicker. But to complicate matters, it is often found scattered among large flocks of Woodpigeons.

Golden Plover

Simon Stirrup/Alamy

Simon Stirrup/Alamy

Although their numbers have sadly decreased alarmingly in recent decades, Lapwings are still easily identifiable in their winter flocks, because of their pied appearance and broad, flappy wings. But if you see them, look closer, because outside the breeding season, Golden Plovers are often close by. On farmland, they’re much more unobtrusive, generally feeding in a loose scatter that could be mistaken for winter thrushes, but a close look should reveal the gilded upperparts. In flight, they form large flocks, often flying high, but their pointed wings should be obvious on closer inspection, and the flocks ‘twinkle’ as they turn to and fro.

Common Gull



Beginner birders quickly learn to ID the Black-headed Gull, which turns up in any and every environment, and the Herring Gull and its close relative the Lesser Black-backed are also familiar to many from seaside holidays. But in-between, size-wise, is this subtle species. As well as being smaller than a Herring Gull, it’s daintier all-round, with a narrower yellow bill and a more rounded head. Look for it on ploughed fields, sometimes in company with other gull species – it’s far less likely than the others mentioned to turn up in urban environments.


David Chapman/Alamy

David Chapman/Alamy

Another farmland bird that has suffered declines, Linnets are, however, still numerous in many parts of the country. In spring and early summer, they’re harder to miss, because the male’s red forehead and breast stand out, and they tend to be seen in pairs. But at other times of year, they can become anonymous, with duller, largely brown plumage. If you see a flock of small finches feeding on weed seeds around field margins, check to see if they’re Linnets. Their ‘tigg-it’ flight call should confirm their identity.

Meadow Pipit

David Chapman/Alamy

David Chapman/Alamy

Small, brown birds in open country in spring are often Sky Larks – once the males start delivering their rhapsodic song from high above, ID is easy. But what about those streaky brown birds that pop up on fence lines briefly, then fly away weakly, at times appearing to be blown by the wind? They’re Meadow Pipits, and once you get them firmly fixed in your mind, you can start thinking about finding Tree, Rock and Water Pipits, too.

Hopes for the Black Kite

Could Black Kites become a regular sighting in the UK and ultimately breed here? David Tomlinson thinks so…

Tweed Media

Tweed Media

Thanks to the most successful raptor reintroduction project in the world, the Red Kite has become a familiar bird for many of us. I live in Suffolk, where these handsome birds have yet to establish themselves, though they are sure to do so soon, as the number of breeding pairs in nearby Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire continues to increase.

Though they may not breed locally, I see them regularly in the county, and every year I get an increasing number of records from my patch. The latter is the immediate vicinity of my home: a paddock that I manage for Barn Owls and Tree Sparrows, surrounded by arable fields producing onions, potatoes, barley and maize. It hardly looks the most promising of bird habitats, but in a good year I have recorded more than 100 species, while the accumulative total for the 14 years I have lived here is 136

There have been a few goodies over the years, including Wood Sandpiper and Stone-curlew, Red-backed Shrike and Wryneck. Raptors range from Marsh Harrier to Merlin and Goshawk (I do live in the Brecks), but I’m still waiting for my first Honey Buzzard.

However, one of the great attractions of birdwatching is that the unexpected is always a possibility. On 19 April, a bright sunny day with a south-easterly wind, I was involved in a photo session in my field with professional photographer, Sarah Farnsworth. Sarah was busy taking photographs, when I noticed a large raptor, soaring low over the lime trees that line my drive

A glance suggested that it was a Red Kite, always a good sighting here and one to be enjoyed. I swung my Leica Noctovids on to it, as much to enjoy watching it as to identify it, when I realised that it wasn’t a Red Kite at all, but its close cousin, a Black Kite. I can claim some experience with Black Kites, as I have seen thousands of them.

I’ve watched them streaming over the Straits of Gibraltar in the early spring, when they come in flocks hundreds strong. I’ve watched them on their breeding grounds in countries like Spain, France and Switzerland, where they are widespread and often common, and I’ve also observed them in extraordinary numbers on the rubbish tips of Delhi – how many was difficult to count, but my estimate was of thousands rather than just hundreds of birds

Similar in size and appearance to a Red Kite, the Black is a less elegant bird. Its tail, though forked, lacks the deep cleft of the former, while its wings aren’t so long, so they appear proportionately broader and less angular. The colour is a giveaway, for though this kite isn’t as black as a crow, it is dark brown, and lacks the colour and contrast of the Red. Incidentally, the French, the Spanish and the Germans all call it the Black Kite: Milan Noir, Milano Negro and Schwarzer Milan respectively

David Tomlison. Pic: Tweed Media

David Tomlison. Pic: Tweed Media

Sarah was shooting with a 200mm lens, but fortunately it gave sufficient magnification for her to capture a great series of images of the bird as it soared over our heads, before thermalling away to the north, and Norfolk, in company with a Buzzard. It’s always good to capture photographs of birds like this, as county recorders are far more likely to accept records of individuals that have been photographed. (Some years ago I saw a Black Kite at Wrotham in Kent, but I didn’t submit the record as I didn’t have binoculars or a camera, and suspected that doubts would be cast on my sighting).

I was well aware that Black Kites are rare birds in the UK, though an increasing number of records in recent years has downgraded them from being a true rarity, with sightings considered by the British Birds Rarities Committee, to just a scarce migrant. In Suffolk, the first two records were in 1971, and there wasn’t another until 1979. There have now been more than 30 accepted records, almost all of which have been in the spring and on the coast. Inland records, like mine, remain extremely unusual.

I turned to the most recent Report on Scarce Migrant Birds in Britain, for 2015, published in British Birds in September 2017. Since 2010, there has been an average of 25 Black Kites recorded in the UK annually, most in the spring and very few in the late summer. Kent is arguably the best county to try and see one, but they do occasionally reach Scotland, such as the bird on mainland Shetland in April 2015. The report notes that the “small but significant increase in spring overshoots reaching Britain [the average number of records was 17 a year from 200-09] reflects a marked growth in the Iberian and French populations since the 1980s.”

Tweed Media

Tweed Media

It’s a reminder that Black Kites are an exception among European raptors, for not only are they thriving, but they are spreading farther north, helped, no doubt, by our warming climate. They are strongly migratory, with the first birds arriving back in southern Europe in late February and early March. At this time, it is quite usual to see big flocks in Andalucía, often feeding together, on the ground. They will be around for a day or two, before moving on north to their breeding grounds. They are quite different in their habitat requirements from the more generalist Red Kite; for in northern Europe they favour territories close to water, where they like to scavenge dead fish.

Once they have finished breeding, they seldom linger long. The first departing individuals pass over Gibraltar in late July, and the peak passage is during the middle 10 days of August. A few are seen in September, but by October only the odd straggler occurs. As migrants they penetrate deep intro tropical Africa, mixing with the local (and closely related) Yellow-billed Kites.

In France, where they are widespread and relatively common as far north as the Loire, there are estimated to be between 22,500 and 26,300 pairs, making up a quarter of the European population. The French population is increasing fast: when the EBCC Atlas of European Breeding Birds was published in 1997, the number was estimated at fewer than 7,000 pairs, while the first French breeding bird atlas (1976) suggested just 1,000 couples.

With such a growing population in France and an increasing number of overshooting migrants reaching the UK, this has to be one bird that will follow the examples of other southern migrants, such as Black-winged Stilt and Bee-eater, and start nesting here. However, so far there have been no records of prospecting pairs, not even lingering individuals.

As most twitchers will confirm, this isn’t an easy bird to see in the UK. Most sightings are of passing migrants, seen briefly and rarely pausing. There was a record of one from Kent on the day I saw my bird. It may well have been the same individual. It would be fascinating to know what happened to it.

Did it suddenly realise that it had flown too far and head back to the continent? My suspicion is that it might have done.

Pic: David Chapman/Alamy

Pic: David Chapman/Alamy

We certainly have sufficient habitat here in southern England to support breeding Black Kites. Lowland reservoirs like Bough Beech in Kent, Abberton in Essex and Rutland Water could all provide what appears to be perfect habitat. Competition with existing populations of Red Kites is unlikely to be a problem. The two species have always bred side-by-side in Spain’s Coto Doñana National Park with little, if any, conflict. Like Red Kites, Blacks are semi-colonial, happiest living and nesting in company with others of their kind.

There can be no question of introducing Black Kites to the UK: they have never nested here. However, if you wanted to put money on a likely colonist, then this handsome, adaptable bird does seem a pretty good bet. Hot summers, like the one we have just experienced, seem likely to increase the odds of nesting taking place.

However, it should be remembered that like most raptors, Black Kites are reluctant to cross broad stretches of water, making the English Channel a major deterrent. If it wasn’t for the Channel, I’m sure that these birds would already be nesting here.

Black Kite factfile

Scientific name: Milvus migrans
Length: 48-58cm
Wingspan: 130-155cm
UK numbers: Passage migrant
Habitat: Breeds in forests near lakes, rivers or wetlands
Diet: Fish, offal, refuse.

David’s Kit Box

Leica Noctivid 10x42 binoculars RRP: £2,350

Interview: Author Mark Cocker

How one man turned a five-acre patch of land in Norfolk into a habitat-rich area for wildlife

Mark Cocker

Mark Cocker

No birder can fail to get excited about going to Norfolk, but my trip was not going to be just
a birding experience, but also a chance to interview, work with, laugh with and share
a ‘little bit’ of moaning with Mark Cocker. Yes work!

As he details in his most recent book, Our Place, Mark bought himself five acres in 2012 from the proceeds of one of his books, Birds and People. At one time, the land would have been described as ‘fields’ by the River Yare, but nature had other ideas and left to its own devices had slowly turned open ground to willow scrub. With the accumulation of leaf litter and roots, it would have one day turned to mature woodland.

Clearing areas of scrub painstakingly with a bushman saw, Mark was gaining some useful firewood as well as time to think about his writing. Working alongside Mark, I was asked to cut up some recent ‘felled’ willow, stacking the smaller branches and piling the large trunks to eventually dry out and then take to his home, cut up as logs.

Mark first showed me around his ‘showpiece’. After only six years he had certainly turned the site into a mixture of habitats, with mature willow scrub, coppiced growth, tall herbs, reedbeds, draining ditches and a small area of field, grazed by the local Chinese Water Deer. The aim is to attract Norfolk Hawkers to buzz around the area, Elephant Hawk Moths to the Willowherb and Fen Raft Spider to the dykes.

Mark, of course, has several books to his name, a mixture of biography, history and memoir. They include Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet (2014), shortlisted for several awards (including the Thwaites/Wainwright Prize) and winner of the New Angle Prize. Crow Country was nominated for a Samuel Johnson Prize. Birds and People (2013),
a collaboration with photographer David Tipling, was published to international acclaim, and the two were shortlisted for six literary awards including the Thwaites/Wainwright Prize.

In 2016, Mark was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of East Anglia.

Lots of different species

David Tipling was not just a friend and collaborator, but used to be his neighbour in the woodland/habitat business. Long discussions about the world of nature took place either on his or Mark’s land. Hard days thinking about future ideas and even books came out of these discussions. David has now sold up next door and bought a wood closer to home in north Norfolk.

Wandering around the land to see Mark’s past work, we stopped at a mature Oak which, given its age, had not been planted by Mark. Given the distance to the next mature Oak where the acorn had come from, it must have been planted by a Jay carrying and burying the acorn ready for a winter meal, then forgetting it. Here, the 600 species of birds, mammals, bumblebees, dragonflies, butterflies, macro and micro moths already recorded on the site were added to when Mark spotted not one but two species of moth using the lichen on his oak as camouflage. Although not ID’d straight away, the wide depth of knowledge Mark has as a naturalist, shone through, as he gave the Latin names of possible species.

In his younger days, his experience led to him to work for organisations like the old Nature Conservancy Council on Holkham NNR in Norfolk, for the RSPB working on species protection on a pair of Parrot Crossbills in the Holkham car park, and for Birdlife International. Mark has also guided for holiday companies such as Limosa and Naturetrek.

Talking to him, I got a good insight into a how a book is constructed. For example, Mark walked 30 miles of the 62-mile long Norfolk Coast Path while writing his latest volume. Not the longest walk in Britain, but it covered many areas of land now protected by conservation organisations, like the RSPB, Norfolk Wildlife Trust and the National Trust. Many walkers walk at speed, but Mark was doing as little as a mile an hour, due to his naturalist’s instinct, wanting to ID as much as possible along the way. He was seeing part of the success of Operation Neptune, a programme set up by the National Trust to buy 900 miles of coastline (today it owns 775 miles).

Mark explained to me that the purchase of the ‘Flow Country’ in northern Scotland was one of the RSPB’s finest hours.

“Described as ‘Britain’s last wilderness, the Flow Country’s premier parts were bought by the RSPB to protect it from forestry and wind farms and has led to the organisation’s single largest landholding, a whopping 52,000 acres.” The RSPB is now promoting an area of Scotland desperate for ‘wildlife tourism’.

Bird song

The Great Fen Project is another scheme joining land together to protect water levels and other factors which make the land tick.

“Too many reserves are ‘islands’ and need connecting to give wildlife a better chance,” said Mark.

Brimstone Butterfly Naturepix/Alamy

Brimstone Butterfly

While working hard on the willow scrub, we stop for a while to watch a Brimstone butterfly cross our path. This was the first butterfly of the year for me, having come from ‘up north’!

The list of bird song was added to by a Willow Warbler fresh in from Africa, along with three other warblers – Chiffchaffs loving the scrub, Cetti’s preferring scrub with reeds growing through it, and Blackcaps enjoying the brambles found in Mark’s brash piles, keeping the deer at bay.

Warblers still to arrive on Mark’s land include Whitethroat plus Garden, Grasshopper, Sedge and Reed Warblers. “Not many of those where you come from,” said Mark, meaning the Cetti’s Warbler. “We’ve had records from Walney to Siddick Pond. There are breeding birds as far north as Leighton Moss on the west and Teesside on the east,” was the reply.

This brought us on to ‘twitching’, which Mark used to do but not anymore.

“To think I once drove overnight from Scilly to Aberdeen to see an Isabelline Wheatear!” he said. I couldn’t beat that. “I did once sleep in when my mate had to wake me up to go for a Red-flanked Bluetail at St Abbs”, is all I could respond with.

His all-round naturalist’s cap gave him the rarest bird he ever found, while looking for the Great Yellow Bumblebee in the Outer Hebrides. He happened to be around Tarbert on Harris when he spotted a dream bird – a White-throated Needletail! 

“It is, in fact, the world’s fastest bird in level flight,” he said. “Unbelievable though it seemed to us, the eighth example ever to be seen on these islands was suddenly careering overhead.”

His most amusing moment came the following day. “Watching one friend go from gibbering anxiety to exultant delirium (when he finally saw the bird) was like watching an addict eventually get his fix!”

Mark Cocker – book research

Green Woodpecker Nik Goulthorp/Alamy

Green Woodpecker
Nik Goulthorp/Alamy

We were soon back to reality, with a Green Woodpecker yaffling behind us, and soon more sawing was in progress. Both a Buzzard and a Kestrel made their appearance, while Mark told me of other records from his patch, such as Marsh Harrier and the sound of Cranes flying over.

We were soon back talking about the present book. “I read 50 books in one year to research this book,” he said (I hate to think how many Mark read for ‘Birds and People’, covering 592 pages!). Mark needed so much up to date information to write this new book – including minutiae such as the cost of fertilisers, and then the cost of removing the same fertiliser as a result of the damage it was doing to waterways. Mind-blowing stuff!

Mark explained that there was a limit to how much he could write in one book, nevertheless, but that he felt he had covered all the major aspects of his subject – whether or not we can save Britain’s wildlife. One interesting feature we talked about was that women created the RSPB 125 years ago, followed by years of it being dominated by men, but that now it is hard to go to a reserve and not find women working in major roles.

It was soon time for me to move on, leaving Mark to carry on his good work with a student, soon to arrive to do his stint at clearing willow and learn about writing from Mark. He still teaches writing as well as nature to groups.

“For me these days, the ideal wildlife walk is one where you don’t actually move because there is so much extraordinary life to see on one spot,” he said.

Mark’s time in Norfolk may be coming to an end, as his roots in Derbyshire are calling and he will have to sell his beloved wood, but wherever he ends up, more brilliant books will be coming our way in the future.

About Mark Cocker


Mark Cocker is an author of creative non-fiction. He is also a naturalist and environmental tutor, who writes and broadcasts on nature and wildlife in a variety of national media. This year, he releases a new book Our Place (Cape) on the fate of British nature since the beginning of the 20th Century. He has travelled in more than 50 countries on six continents, and in 1999 was awarded a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship to study birds in magico-medicinal practices in Benin and Cameroon. For the last 35 years his home has been in Norfolk, where much of his spare time is devoted to the restoration of a small wooded fen called Blackwater. He is married to the arts professional Mary Muir.

Birdwatching in Exmoor

Words and photos (unless stated): Ed Hutchings


Exmoor, with its wonderfully wooded valleys attractive to birds, is loosely defined as an area of hilly open moorland in west Somerset and north Devon. It is the prettier of Devon’s two National Parks, whereas Dartmoor is much bleaker. Yet Somerset could boldly claim Exmoor to be its National Park. The total area of the Exmoor National Park is 267.5 square miles, of which 71% is in Somerset and 29% in Devon. Heather moorland, tumbling streams, wooded valleys and fields, plus a stretch of coastline; such a diverse array of habitats gives this small National Park a good range of bird species.

The upland area is underlain by sedimentary rocks dating from the Devonian and early Carboniferous periods, with Triassic and Jurassic age rocks on lower slopes. Where these reach the coast, cliffs are formed that are cut with ravines and waterfalls. The highest point on Exmoor is Dunkery Beacon. At 519m, it is also the highest point in Somerset.

Terrain here supports lowland heath communities, ancient woodland and blanket mire which provide a habitat for some scarce flora and fauna. There have also been reports of ‘The Beast of Exmoor’, a cryptozoological cat roaming Exmoor. With such an expanse of virtual wilderness, are such claims too far-fetched?

In addition to the Exmoor Coastal Heaths SSSI (Sites of Special Scientific , Interest) two other areas are specifically designated. North Exmoor covers 29,666 acres and includes the Dunkery Beacon and the Holnicote and Horner Water Nature Conservation Review sites and the Chains Geological Conservation Review site. The Chains site is nationally important for its southwestern lowland heath communities and for its transitions from ancient woodland through upland heath to blanket mire.

The site is also of importance for its breeding bird communities, its large population of the nationally rare Heath Fritillary, an exceptional woodland lichen flora and its palynological interest of deep peat on the Chains.

Pied Flycatcher vario images GmbH & Co.KG/Alamy

Pied Flycatcher
vario images GmbH & Co.KG/Alamy

South Exmoor SSSI is smaller, covering 7,741 acres and including the River Barle and its tributaries, with submerged plants such as Alternate Water-milfoil. There are small areas of semi-natural woodland within the site, including some which are ancient. The most abundant tree species is Sessile Oak, the shrub layer is very sparse and the ground flora includes bracken, Bilberry and a variety of mosses.

The heaths have strong breeding populations of birds, including Whinchat and Stonechat. Wheatear are common near stone boundary walls and other stony places. Grasshopper Warblers breed in scrub and tall heath. Trees on the moorland edges provide nesting sites for Lesser Redpoll, Buzzard and Raven. Sparrowhawk, Woodcock and Kingfisher are to be found all year round.

Uncultivated heath and moorland cover about a quarter of Exmoor landscape. Some moors are covered by a variety of grasses and sedges, while others are dominated by heather. There are also cultivated areas including the Brendon Hills, which lie to the east of the National Park.

Wonderful woodland

There are also 7,400 acres of Forestry Commission woodland, comprising a mixture of broadleaved (Sessile Oak, Ash and Hazel) and conifers. Horner Wood and Tarr Steps are prime examples. The country’s highest Beech tree, at 350m above sea level, is at Birch Cleave at Simonsbath, but Beech in hedgebanks grow up to 490m.

At least two species of whitebeam – Sorbus subcuneata and Sorbus vexans are unique to Exmoor. These woodlands are home to lichens, mosses and ferns. Exmoor is the only national location for the lichens Biatoridium delitescens, Rinodina fimbriata and Rinodina flavosoralifera, the latter having been found only on one individual tree.

Red Deer have a stronghold on the moor and may be seen on quiet hillsides in remote areas, particularly in the early morning. A stag, the ‘Emperor of Exmoor’, was Britain’s largest known wild land animal, until it was killed in October 2010.

The moorland habitat is also home to hundreds of species of bird and insect. Due to the loss of large areas of moorland to agriculture, the typical upland birds associated with this habitat are thin on the ground, but species still seen include Merlin, Peregrine, Curlew, Stonechat, Dipper, Dartford Warbler and Ring Ouzel. Black and Red Grouse are now extinct on Exmoor, probably owing to a reduction in habitat management, and for the former, an increase in visitor pressure. Reed Bunting, Linnet, Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Cuckoo, Tree Pipit and Snipe all maintain viable populations on the moorland.

Anywhere on Exmoor with suitable habitat is worth exploring, though the areas of Porlock and Horner Wood stand out. Porlock Weir is less used for seawatching than nearby Hurlstone Point, but can be good in similar west/north-west winds throughout the year.

Stonechat Mike Lane/Alamy

Mike Lane/Alamy

In spring and summer, Manx Shearwater, Fulmar and Gannet move up channel on feeding forays, with a chance of Storm Petrel or Puffin in strong westerlies.

Autumn rarities have included Sooty Shearwater and Little Auk, while all three commoner divers may be seen in winter, with Red-throated by far the most frequent and numerous, from late November to early February. Guillemot, Razorbill and Kittiwake occur at any time of year, most frequently during late autumn or winter storms. Gore Point, 400 yards north of the harbour, gives the best view, but is very exposed, so the preferred spot is behind the shelter of a pillbox just beyond the cottages over the footbridge across the harbour.

Porlock Marsh on the coast attracts a few wildfowl and waders. It is worth a look in spring and autumn for passage waders. As the only low-lying coastal land between Minehead and the Devon border, the marsh was a magnet for migrants, including an impressive list of rarities. However, since the shingle bar was permanently breached in 1996, the marsh has become little more than tidal creeks, and wader interest is much decreased beyond a few Oystercatcher and Redshank.

The shingle, fields and old lime kilns on the east side, accessed from Bossington, are still worth exploring though: Shore Lark, Great Grey Shrike, Black Redstart and Snow Bunting have all been recorded here in autumn or winter. Singles of Isabelline Shrike, in spring, and Little Bunting, in winter, have been recorded along the west side, accessed by walking back along the road from Porlock Weir. The marsh is easily reached from Porlock village; a public footpath leads to the shingle bank.


Raptor viewing

Horner Wood is an excellent and extensive area of hanging Sessile Oak woodland, best in late April to early June, when singing Wood Warbler, Pied Flycatcher and Redstart join a wide variety of resident woodland species. It is also good for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, which are elusive but easiest to locate slightly earlier in the year from late February to early May. Dipper and Grey Wagtail are regular on the two main streams, Horner Water and East Water.

A few Willow Tits might still lurk unnoticed among the relatively numerous Marsh Tits. The track up from the Horner car park is productive, but it does become busy especially at weekends. Quieter spots for the same woodland species are the stretch downstream from Pool Bridge on Horner Water or by the roadside along East Water near the ford at Cloutsham Splash; from here Cloutsham Ball is also a good area to explore. Between Horner and Cloutsham is the viewpoint at Webber’s Post; great for viewing raptors.

The pine, birch and scrub around the large car park host Crossbill, Siskin, Lesser Redpoll, Redstart and Garden Warbler. Nightjars also occur from May to August. It is easy to cover these sites in a circular route via Stoke Pero or Wilmersham Common, or to combine some of them with a visit to Chetsford Water or other high Exmoor combes. Usually it is best to visit the moorland combes first, as the steep-sided woodland combes can be quiet until the sun reaches into them later in the morning.

Two other points of interest: The walk down through the hanging woodlands to the isolated church of Culbone is one of the greatest rural experiences in these isles. Also, look out for Exmoor Ponies, that can be seen roaming freely on the moors. They are a ‘landrace’ rather than a breed of pony, and may be the closest breed to wild horses remaining in Europe; they are certainly one of the oldest breeds of pony in the world.
As for the ‘Beast of Exmoor’? A ‘shaggy cat story’ if ever there was one.

Where to stay in Exmoor

Offering far-reaching views of the surrounding Devon countryside, The Jubilee Inn in West Anstey is located near the southern edge of Exmoor National Park. The inn offers a three-course breakfast, free Wi-Fi and parking. Guests can enjoy an exciting menu in the onsite restaurant or relax in the bar. Packed lunches are also available on request, as are bicycles to explore the local area.

The inn is 35 miles from Exmouth, while Exeter International Airport is only 28 miles away.


Curlew Crisis Month – May 2018

Curlews in crisis

By Jamie Wyver of the RSPB


Curlews have inspired artists, poets and musicians throughout the ages with their eerie but beautiful call. They also have a very distinctive shape, with their 15cm downcurved bill, evolved for probing soft mud for tasty worms, shellfish and shrimps.

But now our biggest wader is in serious trouble. Since the mid-1990s the breeding population of Eurasian curlews in the UK has halved. Vast tracts of moorland, rough pasture and hay meadows, which once rang to the sound of the rising, bubbling cries of these birds have fallen silent.

Many of the remaining curlews struggle to raise their young in an increasingly fragmented landscape. The patchy grassland and moorland where they nest is broken up by forestry and farming, making chicks more vulnerable to ground predators like foxes.


This decline has global implications as the UK is home to more than a quarter of the world’s breeding curlews. This is particularly worrying as most of the other species in the curlew family are vanishing too, including two which are presumed to be extinct, the Eskimo curlew and Slender-billed Curlew.

So, the UK and Ireland Curlew Action Group, a partnership involving a number of conservation organisations and statutory authorities, is running several projects to help curlews recover. One of these, the RSPB’s Curlew Trial Management Research Project, aims to find the best way of managing land to accommodate these birds. This includes looking at different levels of grazing and predator control.

Farmers and landowners play a vital role in reversing this bird’s fortunes. Already many are making a real difference, working with conservationists to try different methods of land management.

'Curlew Crisis Month'

As well as conservation on the ground, curlew champions across the UK are building support for these elegant birds through Curlew Crisis Month, a series of special guided walks and events.

All 'Curlew Crisis Month' events require pre-booking: for details visit the webpage for each event.

The Vanishing Song of the Curlew, RSPB Dove Stone – Sunday 6 May

RSPB Dove Stone in the Peak District National Park is a particularly important site for curlews. Along with the landowner, United Utilities, the reserve team have been working to “re-wet” the bog, by blocking old drainage ditches. This is having a positive effect on the numbers of ground nesting birds, with populations of dunlins, golden plovers and red grouse, as well as curlew, increasing on the peat bog. Book your place on the Dove Stone Vanishing Song of the Curlew walk to discover more about the reserve and the curlews that call it home.

More information here

Whaap Night, Lerwick - Saturday 12 May

The special Whaap Night at Quarff Hall, Shetland, is named after one of the curlew’s traditional monikers ‘whaap’ or ‘whaup’. The celebrations begin with wader sound walks, curlew-themed knitting, wader art, and the launch of a curlew ringtone! Live music from Fleetwood Mac tribute band Chain Gang, supported by Beltane Rae, will celebrate the long-billed bird.

More information here

Curlew Cruise, RSPB Lower Lough Erne, Saturday 19 May

The islands of Lough Erne managed by the RSPB make up one of the last strongholds for curlews in Northern Ireland. The reserve team carefully manage levels of vegetation on these by hand, but also enlist the help of cattle who are ferried between islands on a special boat called a cot. You can take a slightly more comfortable tour of the Lough by joining the Curlew Cruise, where a seat on the Lady of the Lake double-deck cruiser will give you stunning views of the islands and their wildlife.

More information here

Curlew Calling, RSPB Geltsdale – Saturday 19 May

Ian Ryding is the farmland warden at RSPB Geltsdale – and a musician. He’s hosting Curlew Calling, an evening of music and poetry celebrating the landscape and birdlife of the northern hills. His band The Talkin Fellas will be performing a curlew song they’ve written specially for the event. Ian says “As a warden at Geltsdale, to me the curlew is the true harbinger of the changing seasons. With their arrival come ever lengthening days and the anticipation of spring.”

More information here

Woods and Moors Dawn Chorus walk, Eastern Moors – Sunday 27 May

They’re not exactly songbirds but you’ll definitely hear curlews on the Woods and Moors Dawn Chorus walk at Eastern Moors. Find out how the reserve team manage this upland nature reserve for curlews, ring ouzels, and other rare species.

More information here

Curlew Moon at Hay Festival – Friday 1 June

Mary Colwell, conservationist, producer, and writer will be giving an illustrated talk about her new book, Curlew Moon. RSPB Global Conservation Director Martin Harper and curlew species champion and Welsh Assembly Member Mark Isherwood will join Mary to discuss the future of this threatened wader.

More information here

You can also support the RSPB’s curlew conservation work by treating yourself to Mirrie Dancers limited edition chocolate curlew eggs. For each bag of eggs sold an average donation of £1.49 goes towards curlew conservation.

Buy your chocolate eggs here

#My200BirdYear Readers’ Day – RSPB Frampton Marsh

Words: Matt Merritt / Pics: Mark Cureton / Video: Jake Kindred


The best days of birdwatching always require a bit of co-operation from the fickle British weather, and as we headed towards Frampton Marsh RSPB last Friday (September 22), it briefly looked as though that co-operation wasn’t going to be forthcoming.

Thick mist obscured the fields, and we wondered whether we’d see any of the many waders displaced from The Wash by the extremely high tide.

But our fears were misplaced. Gaps appeared to reveal first the sun, then a flyover group of Golden Plovers, and as we got our things together in the car-park more and more of this fast-developing site emerged from the mist, along with a loose flock of around 50 Bird Watching readers, most of them intent on adding a few ticks to their #my200birdyear lists.

Grey Plovers flew over, calling, a Cetti’s Warbler chattered away from some nearby scrub, and as we walked towards the sea wall, there was also the sound of Curlews somewhere in the distance, plus Redshanks sounding the alarm.

On the scrapes beside the road, little flocks of Dunlin fed, interspersed with the odd Ruff or Greenshank, while around 15 Yellow Wagtails picked around the feet of cattle.

By the time we reached the sea wall, the mist was gone for good, and we had wide-ranging views both back over the reserve, and out over the rapidly disappearing saltmarsh. Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers were picked out from among the Dunlin below us, while a Wheatear perched on a fencepost and a Sparrowhawk dashed across, hoping to flush Meadow Pipits. A little further away, a flock of 3,000-plus Black-tailed Godwits were visible, plus maybe half that many Wigeon, and some extended ‘grilling’ of the former produced a single Knot, while a small group of Spotted Redshanks flew over.

So far, so good. Pretty much everyone was adding ticks to their lists, but more importantly, they were enjoying the glorious birds in glorious sunshine, and getting a lot of useful tips from Frampton Marsh warden Toby Collett (@boywonderbirder), who gave a relaxed but hugely informative wader ID masterclass.

Scope views of a Merlin on the ground on the far side of the reserve turned our attention to raptors, and we picked out Kestrels, Buzzards and Marsh Harriers at long range, plus a single Whooper Swan and a similarly solo Bar-tailed Godwit. Wood Sandpiper was another good tick for many, although it eluded some of us (including me – I’m not jealous, honest).

Finally, we headed over to the Reservoir, a part of the reserve I’ve completely missed in the past, to look for the Red-necked Grebe that had been present for a couple of days. And sure enough, there it was, a juvenile resplendent with stripy cheek and throat, and rusty-red neck and upper breast. It was an active bird, and occasionally hard to pick out from the many Little Grebes also on the pool, but it kept us all watching for a good hour.

So, we all headed homewards tired but with the satisfaction of having seen something new, whether for the year or for the life list (that Merlin on the ground was a first for me – I’ve only ever seen them perch on fenceposts previously).

And that’s what the Bird Watching #my200birdyear Readers’ Days are all about. Seeing something new, learning something new. Let us know what you learned, or where you’d like future events to take place, and keep an eye out for news of the next one...

Get in touch: Email here

Watch the #My200BirdYear Readers' Day video:



Birds on the move

Where did the birds around us right now come from? They might have travelled further than you think

By Dominic Couzens

Pic: GEORGE RESZETER / Alamy Stock Photo

Pic: GEORGE RESZETER / Alamy Stock Photo

How do you assess a birding trip? There are various ways, such as counting the number of species you have seen, or re-living good photos that you took. You might have seen something new for the site, or you simply enjoyed the spectacle. On a good day, all these might apply.

However, let’s imagine measuring a birding trip in a very different way. This way is actually not quite possible, but if it was, it would change one’s perception radically. Imagine that, from the moment you set eyes on it, you could know where every individual bird that you saw has come from.

In other words, you would instantly know where it bred or hatched during the summer, and what journey it undertook to get to you. Wouldn’t that make you look at your Black-headed Gulls or Mallards differently!

Now would be a particularly good time to exploit such information. We are in the depths of winter and most birds have settled down for a while. In the months after breeding, many moulted and travelled to their winter quarters.

Now, though, as long as there aren’t any heavy falls of snow, birds have typically moved as far as they will for the moment. The autumn rush has finally subsided, to be replaced by a Christmas quiet.

There is no way to follow a bird’s tracks back, but actually, thanks to the rich heritage of ringing in this country and in Europe, we can make a much better educated guess than you might think.

Two winter bird walks

Pic: David Chapman / Alamy Stock Photo

Pic: David Chapman / Alamy Stock Photo

To illustrate this, I am going to take you on two winter walks. One will recount an actual walk that I have taken in my local patch, a couple of small reservoirs next to a river in Dorset, 10km inland. The second is a walk through a book, the BTO’s mighty Migration Atlas, published in 2002 and summarising the known movements of every British bird.

To quote one example from the book, of Redwings controlled (caught, having been ringed earlier) in Britain, 60% are known to be from Finland, 14% from Sweden and 5% from Norway. This is raw data and subject to all sorts of bias – there isn’t much ringing in the vast forests of European Russia, for example.

But, since the first birds I saw on my walk were a small flock of Redwings passing over in the grey, damp December sky, I am fancifully going to extrapolate: of my 15 Redwings, I reckon that nine are from Finland, two from Sweden and about three-quarters of the other bird is from Norway.

Although I will never know, and it would take enormous effort ever to find out for sure, my estimate is still based on real statistics. It does have a value in making you realise where our winter birds are coming from.

Black-headed Gull

Pic: KEVIN ELSBY / Alamy Stock Photo

Pic: KEVIN ELSBY / Alamy Stock Photo

My next species, inevitably, is Black-headed Gull. The lakes are often carpeted with these gulls in the winter – up to 400 birds. To be honest, on most trips I barely notice them, and rarely can I be bothered to count them.

Let’s face it – who really does bother with Black-headed Gulls? In fact, though, their origins are thoroughly mixed, so they are a particularly good candidate for this kind of exercise.

We have significant colonies in Dorset, so it is extremely likely that some of my flock will be local birds. But perhaps what many birders don’t realise is that Black-headed Gulls arrive in large numbers in winter from many parts of Europe and that about 70% of the birds we see in winter are visitors. 

These are mainly from Fennoscandia and the near-continent, but others are from less obvious places such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Belarus. My flock could contain birds of nine or 10 nationalities.

Blackbird, Chaffinch, Great Crested Grebe and more…

A Blackbird scoots past into the nearest scrub – about a quarter of our visiting birds are from Norway, so if I later see a small group of Blackbirds feeding in the horse paddocks beside the lake, I can assume that at least one is from there.

Chaffinches are an interesting case, because you can usually tell that they are continental visitors from their behaviour. The really big flocks of Chaffinches on arable fields and in woods are usually visitors, while residents tend to occur in smaller parties and don’t wander.

Our birds are often from Scandinavia, but they don’t like the long crossing over the North Sea, and prefer to fly down the coast of Europe and make the short hop over from France.

A quick check of the first reservoir throws up some Great Crested Grebes – they often come to larger waterbodies in winter when the smaller ones freeze up, but they are all probably local.

Some of the Tufted Ducks also bred here, but others are likely to be from Norway and Finland. They have a few Pochards among them, too, and here I can add some hard data to the mix. Last year, we recorded a female fitted with a band on its bill, proving that it had commuted here from northern France, where it was a breeding bird.

This individual clearly hadn’t read the right books, because these birds are supposed to migrate south and west in winter, not due north. Many of our winter Pochards actually come from Latvia.

As usual, I check the flock for our lone winter Scaup, and eventually find it loafing among a flock of Tufties. This is one of the visitors that most probably comes from Iceland, along with our Snipe and perhaps a few Teals and other northern ducks.

Along the shoreline, a Pied Wagtail feeds. It might be sharing the same space as the nearby ducks, but ringing suggests that this bird could well be Scottish, evacuating the hills and glens for a shoreline in southern England.

I could go on. I hear a Water Rail, not realising at the time that it could be a German bird. A Sparrowhawk passes over and, to my great surprise, I read from the Migration Atlas that it could easily be from Norway or Denmark. The local Grey Herons could be from almost anywhere, and every winter we have an inexplicable influx of local Little Egrets, just for a few weeks.

In my local patch there happens to be a programme of ringing. It is exciting when we have a ‘control’ from somewhere like France or Portugal, but in a way it is the local and semi-local birds that are the most intriguing.

For example, our breeding Reed Buntings literally evacuate the site and go just a handful of kilometres down to the coast. We have controlled a Cetti’s Warbler that was ringed in Yorkshire – not only are they not supposed to go in that direction, but they aren’t meant to fly that far, either.

That’s the beauty of this form of fantasy birding. Who would expect a ‘sedentary’ bird to embark of such a strange movement? And who can imagine where all the other individuals have been?

One thing is for sure. If you really knew where all the birds had come from, you wouldn’t look at them in the same way, however common they were. If this form of birding ever became possible, it could catch on.

* This article was originally published in the December 2015 issue of Bird Watching magazine. Make sure you never miss an issue – check our great subscription deals here!

Birdwatching in Oland, Sweden

By Göran Andersson of

Öland, the long island in the southern Baltic Sea, has everything the visitor needs to ensure a steady stream of new encounters with birds.

Eventually, it begins to dawn on any visiting birdwatcher that ornithological interests alone are not enough in this multifaceted cultural landscape with its colourful, historical origins and breathtaking geology.

Before long, the ornithologist becomes absorbed in everything and understands that here the saying "Carpe diem" has run its course.

On Öland, people do not seize the day... they are captivated by the unfolding of every new day and are compelled to return time and time again to the island to experience tomorrow!

The southern part of the island is not at all like the northern part and the east coast is wholly different from the west coast. The Great Alvar, the barren limestone plain typical of southern Öland is unique, as is northern Öland's mosaic landscape and the fantastic Mittland Forest in between.

One day the high tide reaches the coastal meadows... the following morning the coast's clay beds are exposed by the low tides and are alive with resting Waders.

This kaleidoscope of steadily shifting environments guarantees plenty of exciting encounters with the island's birdlife.

The island has its own unique weather system, and few meteorologists have mastered the art of making a conclusive forecast, which is essentially impossible. They, and the people of Öland, know that Öland's weather is almost always extremely localised and fluctuating.

However, if you discuss the weather with a farmer or fisherman on the east side, you will often be given an exact current forecast and a trustworthy two-day outlook.

Pics by: Tommie Skoog, Lars Lundmark, Hans Olsson, Eva Aubke, Markus Tallroth and Martin Rodensjö.

An ice-free, green winter on the island creates the conditions for a completely different kind of birdlife than when the Baltic Sea is covered with ice and high pressures from Russia cool Öland down.

If a mild and snow-free December continues with the warm low pressure systems of the Gulf Stream heading north-east in January, then the first spring birds arrive, early "weather migrants" such as Greylag Geese, Common Shelducks, Golden Plovers, Northern Lapwings, Eurasian Skylarks and Starlings.

Yes, the experiences of one spring, when the Atlantic low pressure systems keep arriving over southern Sweden, differ significantly from the bird sightings that are reported when easterly winds blow in over the Baltic Sea.

And just as the final, heat-loving migrants arrive during the last half of May, e.g. Marsh Warblers, Icterine Warblers, Barred Warblers, Greenish Warblers, Red-backed Shrikes, Eurasian Golden Orioles and Common Rosefinches, the spectacular and drawn out migratory bird autumn begins.

As early as this, last year's Common Shelducks and female Eurasian Curlews head south west and as the tourist season kicks into action in June, the Green Sandpipers, Spotted Redshanks, Common Greenshanks and Wood Sandpipers are resting during their journey south.

The strange thing is that the autumn route south can continue into midwinter. For example if there are harsh, cold easterly winds at the start of January after a mild start to the winter... then the Baltic Sea empties of thousands of Little Gulls, often along the south-east coast of Öland.

Or in February, when the ice begins to make serious progress in the Gulf of Finland, and in Estonia and Åland's archipelagos... a steady stream of Common Gulls, European Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls leave the Baltic Sea in a south-westerly direction via Öland.

And if these, the last of the autumn migrants, head for milder low pressure winds over southernmost Sweden, they may meet Lapwings, Starlings and Eurasian Skylarks flying north-east.

Despite Öland's maritime climate it is a sunny and fairly dry landscape, which is good company for a birder.

The southernmost part of Sweden, perhaps mostly the highlands of Småland, provide a "rain shadow" for the island: precipitation falls from the damp low pressure fronts in the west before reaching Öland.

On the other side when the Baltic Sea offers an ice-free winter, one of the meteorologists' favourite expressions is born, "snow cannons", from the dry, biting and icy north-easterly winds. They have their origin in the powerful, Russian high-pressure fronts and create curtains of snow on their way to Öland.

Sometimes the island experiences the special and fascinating but dangerous snow storm - the Öland Fåk! To experience a real "fåk" under safe conditions, is a spectacular experience for the humble human.

In combination these create Öland's eight seasons, the foundation for a landscape with a rich fauna.

The ultimate birding year consists of four "normal" seasons, linked together by four in-between periods of fluctuating weather.

When these meteorological conditions are then combined with ornithological magnificence, such as:

•     routes of migrating birds,

•     gatherings of migrating birds on the headland of the north and south,

•     traditional resting places where the whole of Öland is a refuge in the routes of migrating birds,

•     the marshes of the Great Alvar and wetlands that blink in the otherwise fairly barren habitat,

•     smallholdings in the alternating mosaic landscape and

•     the grazed coastal meadows beside the Baltic Sea,

yes, it is a mathematical truth... Öland is a completely unique place for birds.

Most of Sweden's birds have been seen here and wherever you find yourself between March and July you will hear the Skylarks singing. Yes, nowhere else in the country is there such a high concentration of Skylarks!

The limestone plains, look like misplaced alpine heathland. But when you look out across the Great Alvar or hike along the Alvar-clad limestone floor, the experience almost approaches a verdant "inland sea".

This lyrical and slightly desolate ocean of growth has its own special brand of horizon, a thin line between land and sky... like a counterpart to the distant blue horizons of the Baltic Sea and the Kalmar Strait.

Merlins, Golden Plovers and Eurasian Curlews nest here.... and where the juniper has crept onto the plain, inside the kingdom of stone walls, there are species such as Red-backed Shrikes, Common Whitethroats, Common Linnets as well as Whinchats and Northern Wheatears.

Öland, for a birder, is a magical landscape all year round. My own annual cycle often begins with overwintering Golden Eagles on the limestone plains and huge gatherings of White-tailed Eagles along the coast.

Migrating birds, such as Common Snipes, Meadow Pipits, Song Thrushes and Redwings remain and along the banks of seaweed or in some industrial area, Black Redstarts spend the winter.

The Horned Larks and Sanderlings return to a sandbank by the sea.

If there is a really harsh winter, it doesn't arrive until February. Then there is a chance of seeing Steller's Eiders and Purple Sandpipers, who often remain as spring and early summer creeps over the island.

For me, the real sounds of spring are the coastline's laughing Common Shelducks and screeching Black-headed Gulls, along with the parasols of sound that span the landscape and the limestone plains, like unpredictable Eurasian Skylarks and Northern Lapwings that hover over those who take the time to see and listen.

For a few nights in May I am offered a starter to the summer, a dish that makes its way straight to my heart and soul: Corncrakes, Nightjars, Common Quails and Thrush Nightingales. After that everything around us, Öland's birders, deepens and grows, so there is barely time to see everything. There are, quite simply, just too many birds here.

The loveliest period of the summer comes in August along the east coast of Öland, especially during late afternoons and evenings. The sea is warm now and the shallow, stretching beaches and the exposed sea beds produce food for migrating birds.

Here we can sit with the sun on our backs and just enjoy the Arctic Wader migration, perfected by Parasitic Jaegers, Dippers, Black Terns and the unbelievably fascinating migration of Common and Arctic Terns, but also by episodes of Caspian, Little and Sandwich Terns!

And then, one dawn as September becomes October, hundreds of thousands of European Robins and Goldcrests arrive on Öland, after a night migrating across the Baltic Sea.

They are everywhere. They strum and sing from every square metre of solid ground and you are captured and enchanted by this "magical, great migration" experience.

After that experience, nothing again seems the same in your ornithologist's life. You will always return to Öland, whether it is in your thoughts or in reality.

And then comes the great day of Common Cranes... or the day of the Rough-legged Buzzards. Days of Greater White-fronted Geese and Barnacle Geese, before November turn the paraffin lamp's flame down to its lowest.

Finally, in the last light on the afternoon of New Year's Eve you see a male Common Blackbird rummaging through autumn leaves.

Click here for the Visit Oland website




BBC Springwatch at RSPB Minsmere

As we all sit glued to our screens watching the latest bird-related dramas unfold on BBC TV’s Springwatch, Adam Rowlands, RSPB Senior Sites Manager for North Suffolk Reserves, recalls the highs and lows of hosting the popular series at RSPB Minsmere for the last two years.

Adam says: “Before the Springwatch cameras rolled into Minsmere, few visitors paid much attention to the reserve’s fish, unless they were being eaten by a bittern or little egret. All that changed in June 2015 as the saga of Spineless Si unfolded on our screens, and visitors began taking selfies as they watched his antics live from the boardwalk into Island Mere Hide.

The popularity of this two-inch long stickleback took even the producers by surprise, but also highlighted how much there is to learn about behaviour of even our commonest wildlife.

A great example of this was what became known as “Badger-geddon” when, during the first series from Minsmere in 2014, a badger was filmed swimming out to islands on the Scrape and devouring nest after nest of gull and avocet eggs.

Armed with this new evidence, we set about replacing the aging anti-predator fence around the Scrape with a higher specification fence the following winter.

The results were instant, with 2015 the most successful breeding season for avocets for more than 30 years. After the low of 2014, it was heart-warming to see so many avocet chicks feeding close to the Scrape hides.

There was another positive side to the badger predation too, as we teamed up with the BBC and Dawn Scott from the University of Brighton to understand more about Minsmere’s badgers by fitting some with radio collars.

Adders, too, became the subject of a tracking programme with tiny transmitters fitted to some of them to give an insight into their movements.

In fact, adders have become a star attraction at Minsmere during the spring, with many visitors being lucky enough to watch them dancing as courtship reaches full swing in early April.

Their popularity with visitors could have presented a problem as adders are very prone to disturbance. But we spoke to some experienced adder surveyors within our volunteer team and quickly identified an effective way to allow visitors, including families, to spot these sometimes elusive snakes without disturbing them.

Our temporary adder trail was a great success, and coupled with the BBC data, our volunteer guides were able to build up a good knowledge of individual snakes.

Volunteers, of course, are a key to helping to ensuring that Minsmere works as both a leading visitor attraction in Suffolk on one of the best homes for nature in the UK. Once we knew that Springwatch would be moving to Minsmere we recruited an additional team of volunteers to assist with all aspects of the reserve operations.

Recruiting volunteers before the first series was a test of our imagination. Until the official BBC announcement about three weeks before broadcast, we had to deny that Springwatch were even coming to Minsmere, so the adverts asked for “secret keepers”.

Of course, it was obvious that something was happening as the BBC had constructed a new studio close to the Whin Hill watchpoint, as well as two filming hides on the Scrape, so you could say this was the worst kept secret in the world.

As secrets go, though, this one was a long time in the planning. Much longer than many people realised.

We first met with Springwatch film maker Nigel Bean way back in 2008 when they were looking for a new home for the series after deciding to leave their original Devon Farm. At the time, Minsmere’s technical restrictions meant that they chose to set up at Pensthorpe in Norfolk instead.

(Photos by Rupert Masefield and John Chapman)

Although disappointing, this proved to be a blessing in disguise. By the time we spoke to Nigel again in July 2013, we had upgraded our visitor facilities and infrastructure and felt much more confident that we could facilitate the anticipated increase in visitors should Springwatch set up base at Minsmere.

Nigel quickly realised the potential for Minsmere to provide footage of the best of the UK’s wildlife within easy reach of a central base, but while the communication issue was easier to address this time, there was one big question to answer: where would the studio be?

We had no suitable building, so a purpose-built studio was commissioned – once approved by the BBC bosses, of course.

This was only the start of the planning though. We had to plan carefully to accommodate both the BBC and the expected extra visitors to ensure that everyone continued to enjoy their visits to Minsmere – and to improve the visitor experience throughout the year.

As well as extra volunteers, our planning meant bringing in a temporary pop up cafe in the woods to supplement our own cafe, providing extra toilets and overflow car parking, producing extra signage, and training our new volunteers.

The BBC had logistical issues to address too, as this was the first time Springwatch had been based at a site with high public access.

Temporary Springwatch village

A temporary village for 120 staff was built in two weeks prior to broadcast, and dismantled again in just 48 hours. There were 12 fixed cameras erected around the reserve, and three mobile cameramen ready to record the action, as well as a team of engineers, story-editors and even their own catering team, all working shift patterns around the clock to bring footage, not just for the live programmes, but the via the red button too.

Cables had to be laid to minimise disturbance, and wherever possible cameras were checked or moved at first light, before many visitors were around. It is no small feat to lay 32 km of cabling around a nature reserve without disturbing visitors or wildlife, but the BBC’s expertise ensured that this was done successfully, ready for broadcast.

In that first year, we were surprised to hear that much of that cabling came direct to Minsmere from the FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium. Even more surprisingly, within an hour of the final programme finishing, some cables were on route to the football World Cup in Brazil, with the rest soon packed off to Glastonbury.

I’m sure that Bert Axell, Minsmere’s famous warden from the 1950s and ‘60s, and creator of the Scrape, would have been chuckling at that thought, as his ambition was always to make Minsmere’s Scrape the “Wembley of birdwatching”, even if the thought of thousands of visitors might make him turn in his grave!

Bringing wildlife to our TV screens

Finally, everything was ready for the cameras to roll and the presenters to bring Minsmere’s amazing wildlife to TV screens across the UK. Fittingly, 2014 was the 25th anniversary of the BBC’s Live Birdwatch programmes presented by Tony Soper from Minsmere, while this year will mark 35 years since the first of those broadcasts in 1981. Both the scale and technology involved in live broadcast have changed a lot in the intervening years.

Talking of scale, the planning that went in before the shows even aired meant regular 15-hour days for our Site Manager, Robin Harvey, and me as we worked with the BBC to identify filming locations and reduce any impact on the wildlife.

But the rewards were worth it. I can vividly recall the excitement of stumbling upon a bittern nest with eggs still being incubated whilst looking for another known nest. This new nest went on to steal the show in year one as viewers were captivated by the growing bittern chicks eager to watch them “semi-fledge.”

Our bitterns proved popular with visitors too, with the females’ regular feeding flights ensuring that most visitors had the chance to see these often elusive birds. Some visitors were brought to tears by these bittern encounters.

We’ve also learned a lot from working alongside the BBC’s expert nest finder, Steve Roberts, as his skills proved invaluable when locating nests. We feel more confident in our abilities to find nests now, too.

After the bitterns and tawny owls in year one, and the avocet chicks, adders and sticklebacks in year two, which species will be the stars of the current BBC show? However much we plan, the unpredictability of wildlife means that until the cameras roll once more, we really couldn’t guess.”

Visit RSPB Minsmere official website.

Visit the official Springwatch site.

Identify Marsh and Willow Tits by sound

This pair of birds are among the most difficult to separate of all British birds – at least based on their appearance. The most reliable way to separate these brown tits is their voice. Unfortunately, there is considerable variation and a little overlap in the vocalisations. Fortunately, though both species are very vocal, and the most common calls and songs are distinctive and diagnostic.

Marsh Tit song

Marsh Tit song by birdwatchingmag

Like a fast repetition of the ‘pitchoo’ call, especially the second (‘choo’) half. The phrase is rather monotone and consists of several ‘choos’ in rapid succession.

Marsh Tit ‘pitchoo’ call

Marsh Tit calls by birdwatchingmag

The classic Marsh Tit call is a sneezing ‘pitchoo’, with a distinct separation of the clipped, high-pitched first part and a drawn out pew sound for the second half of the sneeze. The call is often followed by a typically tit-like ‘chicka dee-dee-dee’, which is rapidly paced, unlike the chay chay of Willow Tit.

Willow Tit ‘pew’ song

Willow Tit song by birdwatchingmag

The slurred, drawn out repeated pew notes of Willow Tit song are more reminiscent of Wood Warbler pew song than Marsh Tit. It is a slower, more deliberate ‘pew’, also reminiscent of Coal Tit.Willow Tit song by birdwatchingmag


Willow Tit ‘chay chay’ call

Willow Tit calls by birdwatchingmag

The typical and unmistakable call of the Willow Tit consists of a very brief introduction pi followed by three or four drawn-out, rather buzzing ‘chay’ notes. Crucially, these are slowly paced, unlike the rapid ‘chickadee-dee-dee’ of Marsh Tit.


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